In the days leading up to the March 17 announcement of the 2015 NBCC award winners, Critical Mass highlights the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member Tess Taylor on poetry finalist Ross Gay's “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude” (University of Pittsburgh Press).
Sometimes, in this age of irony, disillusionment, and moral outrage, it is hard to find convincing language for praise, or space for praising at all. This is why I was so grateful to read Ross Gay’s messy, juicy collection about his life as a community orchardist, helping to raise pawpaws and persimmons in an orchard the public can tend and also pick. Circling this plot, Gay’s poems burst forth in leggy, unexpected ways—zooming in on “legs furred with pollen” or soil “breast stroking into the xylem.”
The book starts with an ode to a local fig tree and weaves outward—including in its sweep praise for buttons, compost piles, Gay’s father’s ashes, insects, the birds, Gay’s feet, Gay’s neighbors, and the world. In the face of racism, murders, addiction, and bombs going off, Gay dares to attempt an exuberant sweetness, to sing in the face of loss. His praise is Whitmanesque, full of manure, mulberry-stained purple bird poop, dirty clothes, hangovers; but also the pleasure of bare feet, of pruning a peach tree, of feeding a neighbor. In “Burial,” Gay sprinkles his father's ashes on the roots of new trees, both “hoping to coax him back” and celebrating the “magic dust our bodies become.”
“Thank you for what inside my friends’ / love bursts like a throng of roadside goldenrod,” he writes, but also, “thank you for not smoking meth with your mother.” In one poem, a robin tells Gay to “bellow forth the tubas and sousaphones, the whole rusty brass band of gratitude.” Whether you’re feeling like you have a whole brass band of gratitude, or if you’re feeling like you only have a rusty horn, read this book. Gay even thanks you for reading it, saying, “I can’t stop my gratitude, which includes dear reader, you for staying here with me, for moving your lips just so as I speak.”
Interview: The Rumpus
Excerpt: The Rumpus